Depression Can Affect Even Pre-school Age Children


Even children in pre-school - those as young as three or four - can experience symptoms of depression, and early detection may be one of the most important aspects of treating it.

In 2004, Joan Luby, a psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis, found that even the youngest of children — those in pre-school or within that age group — can suffer from depression. New research from Luby and her team examines the early detection of depression in such young children, and steps that parents and physicians may be able to take to treat it.

Though very young children who are depressed may experience symptoms that are similar to depressed adults — anhedonia, being prone to guilt, appearing less joyful — the way that the symptoms are exhibited is different. For example, anhedonia in depressed adults generally appears as decreased libido, while depressed pre-schoolers experiencing anhedonia may be less able to enjoy playtime. Luby’s earlier research on this topic resulted in the development of age-appropriate psychiatric interviews, which enabled the team to better recognize depression in very young children.

Luby’s most recent study, which appeared in Current Directions in Psychological Science, establishes the link between depression in pre-school age children and adolescents and young adults who are depressed. The current study establishes that depression during pre-school years increases a child’s likelihood for being depressed as an adolescent or young adult.

“Longitudinal continuity of preschool depression into school age has been established, suggesting that preschool depression is an early manifestation of the later childhood disorder,” the researchers wrote in the study abstract.

It is this new research about the long-term effects of depression early in life that intensifies the need to find effective treatment for very young children, according to Luby. The researchers believe that the “plastic” brains of young children that allow them to adapt and change easily will also increase the efficacy of interventions.

“Based on the known efficacy of early developmental intervention in a number of domains and disorders related to the greater neuroplasticity of the brain earlier rather than later in childhood, it is important to identify depression at the earliest possible point,” the researchers conclude in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “Early intervention strategies for preschool depression that focus on enhancing emotional development are currently being tested.”

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